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Unless: A Novel [Hardcover]

Carol Shields
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 26 2002
“Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.”

Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy: Her three almost grown daughters. Her twenty-year relationship with their father. Her work translating the larger-than-life French intellectual and feminist Danielle Westerman. Her modest success with a novel of her own, and the clamour of her American publisher for a sequel. Then in the spring of her forty-fourth year, all the quiet satisfactions of her well-lived life disappear in a moment: her eldest daughter Norah suddenly runs from the family and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around her neck.

GOODNESS. With the inconceivable loss of her daughter like a lump in her throat, Reta tackles the mystery of this message. What in this world has broken Norah, and what could bring her back to the provisional safety of home? Reta’s wit is the weapon she most often brandishes as she kicks against the pricks that have brought her daughter down: Carol Shields brings us Reta’s voice in all its poignancy, outrage and droll humour.

Piercing and sad, astute and evocative, full of tenderness and laughter, Unless will stand with The Stone Diaries in the canon of Carol Shields’s fiction.

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  • Prizes and Awards: Giller Prize Shortlist 2002


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Product Description

From Amazon

Carol Shields has announced that Unless will be her last novel, and it may well be her most despairing book. Like many of her novels, Unless is about a writer--in this case, Reta Winters, a middle-aged novelist, mother, and translator who lives in a pastoral town just outside of Toronto. Reta lives a happy and successful life until her eldest daughter, Norah, abandons family, boyfriend, and university to panhandle on a busy and slightly seedy Toronto street corner, saying nothing and wearing a sign that reads only "Goodness." Norah's strange self-sacrifice sends Reta into despondency, and she seeks some sort of explanation for her daughter's behaviour in a profoundly pessimistic mode of feminism, insisting again and again that Norah, as a young woman, was simply shut out of any hope for a fulfilling life by a monolithic and masculinist culture.

This nearsightedly negative view of feminism, and Shields's narrator's inability to see her three daughters as human beings, strains the credibility of Unless. Shields can be a wonderfully ironic writer, but that temperament is largely absent here, and much of her usual sophistication is lost in Reta's solipsism. Her prose is as delicious as ever, but that alone is not enough to carry the book. Unless will appeal to devoted readers of Shields, but it cannot be counted among her strongest work. Those who have never read her (or who have only read The Stone Diaries) are better off turning to Swann or Larry's Party, or even seeking out her superb debut, Small Ceremonies. --Jack Illingworth

From Publishers Weekly

If I have any reputation at all it is for being an editor and scholar, and not for producing, to everyone's amazement, a fresh, bright, springtime piece of fiction,' or so it was described in Publishers Weekly. That cheeky self-description sums up the protagonist of Shields's latest, the precocious, compassionate and feisty Reta Winters, an accomplished author who suddenly finds her literary success meaningless when the oldest of her three daughters, Norah, drops out of college to live on the streets of Toronto with a placard labeled Goodness hung around her neck. Shields takes an elliptical approach to Winters's dilemma, slowly exploring the possible reasons why a bright, attractive young woman would simply give up and drop out. As Shields makes her way through Winters's literary career, her marriage and the difficulties she and her daughter face in being taken seriously as women in the modern era, she employs an ingenious conceit by tracking Winters's emotions as she tries to write a sequel to her light romantic novel while helping a fellow writer, a Holocaust survivor, work on her memoirs. As Norah's plight deepens and the nature of her decision begins to surface, the romantic novel turns dark and serious, and Winters faces a rewrite when her long-time editor dies and his pedantic successor tries to introduce a sexist plot twist. Reta Winters is a marvelously inventive character whose thought-provoking commentary on the ties between writing, love, art and family are constantly compelling in this unabashedly feminist novel. The icing on the cake is the ending, which introduces a startling but believable twist to the plight of a young woman who, in doing nothing... has claimed everything. The result is a landmark book that constitutes yet another noteworthy addition to Shields's impressive body of work.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How to be Good May 23 2002
Format:Hardcover
If I was lazy I'd tell you that this is the book that Nick Hornby's How to be Good could have been (if Nick Hornby was even a fifth of the writer that Carol Shields is). Or I could say that this is a twenty-first century reinterpretation of When She Was Good, one of Philip Roth's earlier masterpieces.
Unfortunately, such laziness would do this rather wonderful and thought-provoking book a grave disservice - in that, although goodness - the idea of goodness, what it means to be good - is at the centre of this book, it shares that space with ruminations on the art of writing, and what it is to be a woman (and a woman writer, and a wife, and a mother, and a friend, and a person in the world) at the beginning of what we like to regard as a more enlightened time to be alive.
Reta Winters took her husband Tom's surname when they first got together (part of the reason being that she was originally Reta Summers and they both agreed that one of the seasons had to change). In lots of ways, this information (which is almost the opposite of a revelation, whatever the word for that is) contains the genesis of this novel writ small. They have three daughters together, Reta and Tom, the oldest of whom decides on the cusp of her nineteenth birthday to throw up her studies and live on the street with a simple cardboard sign - on which the word GOODNESS is written - on a string around her neck. Reta has no idea why her daughter has chosen this path and that - the abstract decision to withdraw from the life you are expected to live - throws the world out of kilter. To all intents and purposes life continues on as it did before (Reta and Tom still sleep together, Reta continues to write the sequel to her comic novel, the family entertain at Christmas).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Writing Life June 26 2006
Format:Paperback
Unless is Shields' masterpiece, a treatise on womanhood, motherhood and personhood. Moreover, read carefully, it's a how-to guide of novel writing. Unless is a sad story with triumph at its core, and I will read it again and again as long as I have eyes.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful work of subtlety Feb. 16 2010
Format:Paperback
Unless is beautifully written. It may be too subtle for many people (see reviews claiming it to be tedious), but if you look into her finely woven story, there are many layers of overlapping meaning. If you are not a feminist, Shields may seem to assume too much. Yet I find her feminism to be right on the mark, humble and poignant.
She points out the irony of writing about a woman who is writing about a woman writing. But going through the story, she teaches a clinic on how to write a story. I found it captivating and have read it repeatedly and recommended it to all the women in my life.
Shields also embraces the accusation that she writes about the small moments and small lives. This book was much more memorable than the Stone Diaries which was also fascinating.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as her other works April 3 2003
By Melanie
Format:Hardcover
This book was well-written, but it lacked the lustre of the Stone Diaries or the Republic of Love or Swann, which Shields wrote a number of years ago. The ending of Unless was especially disappointing, as it seemed out of place somehow. If you haven't yet read one of her novels, don't pick this one. The Stone Diaries is a much better novel, with more depth, better characterization and a better plot.
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By Melanie
Format:Paperback
I was expecting this to be Shields' best yet, but unfortunately it just doesn't measure up to her other works. Swann, The Republic of Love, and The Stone Diaries are all better books from this prolific author. Although the book was well-written, it lacked in its depth of emotion and in its richness of plot. The main character is Reta, a mother of three, who is dealing with the fact that her one daughter is choosing to live on the streets of Toronto rather than join her in suburbia. Reta's life seems to focus on superficial things, as she hasn't had to struggle in her career or relationship, so the daughter in crisis causes her to search deeper for meaning in her life. Unfortunately she doesn't delve deep enough and her strength and resilience never comes out. Throughout the book, Reta is afraid to feel too deeply or to express the anger that is stewing inside of her, and instead becomes instrospective about her situation. While her daughter sits on a street corner with a sign saying "goodness" around her neck, Reta meets her friends for coffee and finds way to keep herself busy to avoid the pain of dealing with her 'lost' daughter. When Reta does express grief to her friends, they comfort her by saying, "You have your writing". Reta says nothing in response, and instead thinks about the global powerlessness of women and how women are so busy just trying to maintain their image as 'good' that they miss the opportunity to be great. These feminist observations are interesting, but I would have liked to have seen Reta tell her friends that their comments aren't helpful and the pain and loss is crushing her and causing her to spiral into a depression. Reta's is painted as just a victim of circumstance and a tower of passivity. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars Greatness , Irony, Writing, Philosophy May 25 2002
Format:Hardcover
I fully agree with Diane Cramer's customer review. To which I'll add that Shields makes many clever moves here--"Unless" is a great book about writing, about the impulse towards fiction, the necessity of writing, its healing aspects, the nuts and bolts.
Her feminist rants struck me as full of Irony especially as she is Wrong about the imagined feminist dilemma of the traumatized daughter, and with Reta's famed French mentor, the reining Canadian feminist who, as the world turns, has been traumatized by her own mother. So, the rage against male-domination is layered here, as is almost everything Shields touches.
At one point she has the mother/author Reta dismissing all politics, yet it is a political event that is pivotal, if swiftly handled in "Unless". I disagree with those who say this book is feminine in any traditional sense. Shields is able to "do" philosophy beautifully. Philosophy as it intersects especially with language--those Chapter headings are meditations on words that turn lives, are alluring. She is a philosopher And a story teller, showing the strange way that thought and events can converge and/or diverge. She does this so naturally, like no one else I've ever read.
As for the repeated theme of "goodness," that is also handled ironically, especially as Cramer has written, she achieves greatness here. A multi-dimensional book. No easy way to categorize it, in my opinion. Its plot shows the juxtapostions of living a life vs meditating and thinking on that life. Which is after all, true for all of us, conscious or not. There are continual shocks of self-recognition here. Nothing simplistic or purely domestic at all. And now I'm off to read the rest of her ouvre, which I've not yet done.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Unless
When the book is finished you are asking yourself: what was that?
It did open your interest, though.
B. Janus
Published 20 months ago by bozana janus
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of Unless
Carole writes very well using language that provides clarity and captivates interest but is beyond the vocabulary of the majority of people, possibly not her particulr set of... Read more
Published on Nov. 23 2011 by John
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Read
I very much enjoyed the book Unless, by Carol Shields. It is about a writer writing a book within a book - but that is only part of the story. Read more
Published on April 4 2011 by Darleen
3.0 out of 5 stars The Feminie Identity in Crisis
The message that the late Carol Shields seems to convey to Canadian women in this posthumous novel is that they are non-entities unless they discover and answer to those important... Read more
Published on Feb. 23 2011 by Ian Gordon Malcomson
1.0 out of 5 stars 'Unless' is a sniffling feminist rant
Unless goes to page 320. Twenty pages are blank, and there is a space between every line. So its word count is about the same as Virginia Woolf's very slim, To the Lighthouse. Read more
Published on Dec 27 2010 by Gaboora
2.0 out of 5 stars Rambles
I agree with the reviewer, Carrad's, statement, "Moaning for pages and pages and pages about how female authors and characters have been marginalized for centuries does not justify... Read more
Published on Dec 12 2008 by Shepherdess Extraordinaire
3.0 out of 5 stars Have you already read Stone Diaries and Larry's Party?
I agree with the amazon.ca review. If you haven't read Shields before, do yourself a favour and read "Stone Diaries" or "Larry's Party" before you pick up this... Read more
Published on Dec 23 2005
1.0 out of 5 stars Unless
I read this book because of recommendations and hype. UNLESS you have all kinds of time,,,don't bother,,,however, there are a few interesting pages so if you really are curious... Read more
Published on Nov. 16 2004 by Elina
1.0 out of 5 stars A Painful Read -
This book's reviews sent me directly to the book store to purchase it - once I got it home and read it - not only did I want a refund on the purchase cost but I would also like my... Read more
Published on Dec 1 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars High expectations..
.. can be dangerous. I thought, like Norah's mother, that Norah's behaviour was caused by society in general, and no specific event. Read more
Published on June 12 2003 by Eva
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